Nairo Quintana (Movistar) lifted the Tirreno-Adriatico winner's trident trophy above his head on the final podium in San Benedetto del Tronto, with a proud smile briefly revealing his inner happiness at winning the Italian race for a second time.
While some of his Giro d'Italia rivals stumbled and struggled during the seven days of intense racing, some claiming that they were still not at their best form in early March, Quintana and his Movistar team were rock solid and showed it in the opening team time trial, on the mountain finish on Terminillo and on the testing stage in the Le Marche hills.
Quintana is like a sphinx and never revealed any visible chinks in his armour. He always listens quietly when facing questions and judges his answers as carefully as his racing.
"I'm really happy with this win. Tirreno-Adriatico is a really beautiful race, one that I really like, and conquering it again makes me proud, for all the effort I put in here and especially my Movistar team, which supported me all the way to this time trial," Quintana said.
"I've finished this race in better shape than when I started it. I'm still building upwards, and I'm very pleased because I'm in good shape and have done some good work for the future races. More than winning, my goal is to progress well towards the main objectives of the season."
Quintana started the final 10km time trial with a 50 second lead on Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and 1:06 on Rohan Dennis (BMC) but had to ride close to his limit to ensure victory. He didn't panic or make any mistakes, and eventually finished 45th, in a time of 11:59, some 41 seconds slower than stage winner Dennis. It meant he beat the Australian by 25 seconds in the final general classification, with Pinot slipping to third at 36 seconds.
"I knew I had to go strong today. I couldn't let the specialists put too much of a gap over me," he explained.
"Yet, I was calm and confident that I could secure the victory with the advantage I held. With all rivals we had to face and such a tough course, it's a really prestigious victory to take."
To Colombia to prepare for the Giro d'Italia
Quintana has been cautious about revealing his plans between now and the Giro d'Italia as he prepares to target the ambitious goal of the Giro and Tour de France in the same season. However, he is set to return to Colombia very soon and train at altitude at home before returning to Europe to ride the Vuelta a Asturias (April 29-May 1) in Spain as a last test of his form before heading to Sardinia for the start of the Corsa Rosa on May 5.
He is not avoiding his rivals but just doing the preparation and training that best suits him and his Giro-Tour goal.
"I've got some important weeks coming up, with some important training at home, while also enjoying time with my family and friends as I get to my best condition," he explained.
"This race was all part of the process. Taking part in races like Tirreno-Adriatico is always important, and not only because the win that's at stake. In the end, it's also a Giro d'Italia-organised event, and that makes sure you'll find finishes very much similar to those you'll have to tackle in the Giro. For us, getting to know the roads, reinforce our bond as a team, get used to the pace we'll find in May - it's all about getting focused on that first Grand Tour goal of our season."
Quintana has clearly landed at least a psychological blow to his rivals, but he is aware that they will be stronger come May and perhaps be able to avoid the mistakes of Tirreno-Adriatico. He seems especially wary of defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), who was the last rider to be dropped by Quintana on the climb to Terminillo.
"Team Sky were very unlucky in the team time trial and they'd have been a lot closer," Quintana conceded.
"In the Giro d'Italia we'll have to keep a very close eye on Thomas and not just him, also the rest of his teammates, who will be preparing for this big race very seriously. I think there's going to be a very high level of participation in the Giro d'Italia and we'll have to be very careful," he said.
"Nibali wasn't great here, for example, but he is always at a high level in the Giro. It's a home race for him, and so is Fabio Aru (Astana). They're always strong there, that's an objective for them they always live up to expectations. Other rivals? Geraint will very strong, and there are sure to be others. But the Giro is very different, and some riders who weren't so good here, will be building.
"Of course I also don't feel like all my victories in the early season mean I've reached the top of my career's physical condition, either. I've been developing gradually. Obviously there must be a limit to a rider's progression, but I'm hopeful that the best times are still to come."
Quintana turned 27 in early February and is arguably in the best years of his career. It is perhaps why he has set the goal of the Giro and Tour in the same season. He insisted he is not in a race with Esteban Chaves or any other Colombian riders to make history and become the first ever Colombian winner of the Tour de France.
"My objective is to win the Tour de France one day. I'm not sure if it'll be at the first, second or third try, but my aim is to win it, and other races. I'm a rider who wins from the start of the year more or less to the end of it, and my idea is to stay on this level."
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